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In California, The Last Of Pandemic Stay-At-Home Orders Are Lifted

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

COVID-19 cases in California have been soaring, putting hospitals there under pressure. But new hospitalizations have leveled off. So after nearly two months of tight restrictions, Governor Gavin Newsom is easing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK GHALY: All regions, effective immediately, are no longer in the stay-at-home order.

MARTIN: To get a deeper understanding of this decision, Steve Inskeep talked with California's Health and Human Services secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Why lift restrictions now in California?

GHALY: Well, Steven, we've always said that the regional stay-at-home order, the order we put into place on December 3, was really around protecting our health care delivery system, our hospital system, with a laser focus on ICU beds. And when we look at what's happened over the last couple of weeks with transmission in our state, seeing dropping cases, dropping test positivity, overall drop in our effective - that transmission rate, our projections show that in four weeks - that we will have improved our ICU capacity and gotten to a place where we feel like that system is solid and protected. So we built it around this, and that's why we're lifting it now.

INSKEEP: What restrictions remain?

GHALY: Every county, 99% of our population will be entering purple tier, our most restrictive tier, where a lot of things are still prohibited. We still limit you to only having dining outdoors, so no indoor dining. You can do things like get a haircut and get your nails done with a mask on 100% of the time. You can gather with one additional household outside of your own. A couple of kids, like mine, can go play Frisbee across the street, but you still can't do indoor movies. A lot of the things that, frankly, other parts of the country are still allowing, you can't do here in - for 99% of the population. That's because we went right from that regional stay-at-home order right back into our tiering system and most going into that purple tier.

INSKEEP: Understood because it's county by county now rather than statewide. Still, there will be some changes. Our friends at the Los Angeles Times report that just since the state said the orders would be lifted - the statewide order would be lifted - Los Angeles is going to allow outdoor dining again, something that hasn't happened since November. You're comfortable with that?

GHALY: Yeah, I mean, we know that events that happen outdoors, preferably with a mask on as much of the time as possible, are among the lower-risk events. And we prohibited it because any movement, any mixing outside of your home was concerning when we had such tremendously high case rates. But as they've come down, of course, we must allow and really hope that people use their good judgment.

INSKEEP: I feel that that example does underline, though, how severe the restrictions were in California. I can't think of a time in recent months, in the area where I am, Washington, D.C., where even outdoor dining was prohibited, but you're telling me that it's been prohibited across the state of California for months.

GHALY: Yeah, for much of the state in the purple tier, it has been prohibited. Yes.

INSKEEP: Are we not still in a crisis, though, with national government, a new administration that is urging fresh focus on this to get through a terrible winter? - urging 100 days of masking, for example. Is this the time to be lifting any restrictions at all?

GHALY: Well, I mean, again, the call for 100 days of masking has been in place in California with a mask mandate for many, many months, so that's not new here. So what we've lifted is essentially even more significant restrictions than what I think the new federal administration has called for in other states. And I think the restrictions we have here in California have helped us for a population of 40 million people, dense urban centers throughout our state, to continue to have, you know, per-capita death rates that are still, even though they're rising, lower than many other states, is really a point of exactly what we've been focused on on saving lives. So we think that lifting the regional stay-at-home order around exactly what we advertised it to do, and it was a success - and then going into something that still remains pretty restrictive does make sense for our state.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about something else that's happening. California's Governor Newsom, shortly before we spoke, promised that there will very soon be a new, more statewide way of distributing vaccines in California because a lot of decisions have been left up to counties. California, our correspondent Eric Westervelt notes, is 45th in the nation out of 50 states per capita in vaccinations so far. What do you think has been going wrong?

GHALY: Well, I think that we have done a lot together and done right. We've learned that a decentralized model, although works for many things - with something as operationally as complex as what we've seen this vaccine rollout to be, that centralization will help on a number of things. First, it will make people's expectations consistent across the state. We have 58 counties - some very big, some very small - and they do things differently. Helping bring some consistency both to what people's expectations can be and what the vaccinators should expect in terms of accountability and measurement in data - what we believe - and we're already starting to see some of the benefits of that - will help us do things much, much better, if you will, and focus on our three big things with vaccines - equity, safety and speed and getting there for all Californians is key.

INSKEEP: Dr. Mark Ghaly is the secretary of Health and Human Services in California. Thank you so much.

GHALY: Thank you, Steven. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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